BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2000, `01, `03, `11, `16, `17
OUTLOOK: A master of mind games, Eddie Jones is trying his best to downplay expectations on his team. Just this month, he has called England ”underdogs,” said the team had ”no hope” of winning the tournament, and spoke of the ”doom and gloom” swirling around English rugby because of injuries, a ”muddling autumn series,” and the poor performance by the country’s clubs in European competition. Nice try, Eddie. Ireland is expected to be the only realistic challenger as England bids for a third straight title outright, which has never been achieved in the 135-year history of the tournament. True, England has a long list of injuries and suspensions – among those sidelined for varying lengths are No. 8s Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, winger Elliot Daly and prop Joe Marler – but so has most of its rivals, and England has a bigger depth of talent to draw upon. There are also young, talented players coming through, like flanker Sam Underhill and flyhalf Marcus Smith. Before what could be a final-day title showdown with Ireland at Twickenham, the biggest tests facing Jones’ side might come against Scotland at Murrayfield (Round 3) and France in Paris (Round 4).
EYES ON: Owen Farrell. One thing’s for certain, Farrell won’t be carrying the drinks during the Six Nations. The flyhalf was surely one of the most overqualified water boys ever as he sat out England’s win over Argentina in November while Jones managed the workload of players who had been on the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand. He also sat out the win over Samoa two weeks later. Over the next two months, he’ll be England’s eyes, brains, and points-gatherer on the field, having gradually become the team’s most important player. He was on the five-man shortlist for world player of 2017 and is among the best kickers in the game. With 613 points from 53 caps, Farrell – at age 26 – is more than halfway toward England great Jonny Wilkinson’s record 1,179 points for the country.
QUOTE: ”Without a doubt, the attrition rate is an advantage we have. We have got the most money, we have got the most players, and we have got the most depth, so we should win.” Coach Eddie Jones.
COACH: Jacques Brunel
2017 SIX NATIONS: 3rd
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2002, `04, `06, `07, `10.
OUTLOOK: Coach Guy Noves was sacked in late December by federation president Bernard Laporte, who is himself embroiled in an alleged conflict of interest scandal that threatens his position at the top of a shaky tree. It’s hardly an ideal buildup, and so France’s Six Nations drought – stretching back to 2010 – does not remotely look like ending this year. Laporte hand-picked Jacques Brunel, who was the forwards coach when Laporte led France from 2001-07. During that period, France won the Six Nations four times, including the Grand Slam in 2004. But while that team was packed with flair and brazen self-belief, this one is gritty, obdurate, and lacks enough skill and composure to put top teams under pressure. Brunel improved Italy as its coach from 2012-16, securing wins against France and Ireland in 2013. But restoring France among European rugby’s elite seems a much taller order. He’s assisted by former test flanker Julien Bonnaire, and freshened the squad with 10 players under the age of 23. He also summoned scrumhalf Morgan Parra, who has 66 caps and was a mainstay during the 2010 Grand Slam and run to the 2011 Rugby World Cup final. Parra will miss the opener against Ireland because of knee pains. Yet his recall, while doubtless beneficial in terms of his quality, sums up the fact France never seems to know whether it’s rebuilding or experimenting.
EYES ON: Matthieu Jalibert. The 19-year-old flyhalf is poised to make his international debut against Ireland. Jalibert will be expected to also do the kicking duty, adding to the pressure on his young shoulders considering he’s played just 15 games for Bordeaux-Begles in the French Top 14. Jalibert, however, is considered mature for his age. He says his role model is England and Lions No. 10 Owen Farrell. He could pit his wits against Farrell – whom he describes as a cunning ”poker player” – when the French meet the English on March 10 in Paris.
QUOTE: ”The first match against Ireland will launch us into either a positive or a negative spiral.” New flyhalf Mathieu Jalibert.
COACH: Joe Schmidt
2017 SIX NATIONS: 2nd
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2009, `14, `15
OUTLOOK: Runner-up for a second straight year. Ireland should take care of a shambolic France in the opener, despite their poor history in Paris in the fixture. Then the Irish have a straight home run of Italy, Wales, and Scotland. They lost to the latter two on the road last year, but Dublin’s another story. Ireland hasn’t lost at home in the championship in nearly five years. Which makes the venue of the last match, Twickenham, key. The last four matches between Ireland and England have gone to the home side, and there’s no reason to doubt any different this time. The good news for Joe Schmidt is he has less walking wounded than Eddie Jones, for now. Like England, Ireland swept its November tests, including the result of the month: Ireland 38, South Africa 3. The Springboks were coming off a face-saving, one-point loss to New Zealand and feeling spry, but they were smashed by the Irish. The conductors, naturally, were halves Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton. Murray would pop up outside Sexton, and Sexton would double round his 12; both of them with the aim of changing the point of attack and/or keeping it alive. Their nous and class endures, and ensures the Six Nations title is within Ireland’s grasp.
EYES ON: Jordan Larmour. The 20-year-old fullback-wing has been the talk of the Irish season, actually starting in the offseason when he made his first senior appearance for Leinster. Even though he’s still listed as a club academy player and not in the senior team, he’s almost become undroppable, highlighted by an 80-meter counterattack try against Munster in December, when he stepped three defenders and zoomed home. Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster says Larmour’s footwork, pace, composure on the big occasions, good attitude and hard work in practice remind him of Jack Nowell. First summoned by Schmidt in 2016, Larmour has yet to be capped, but it’s only a matter of when. For this squad he was picked ahead of Simon Zebo, Darren Sweetnam and Tiernan O’Halloran, and will likely back up fullback Rob Kearney and new wing sensation Jacob Stockdale. Kearney quips: ”He’s a flat out winger … if only.”
QUOTE: ”Every year, I look at (the Six Nations) and go, `Wow, we’ve progressed a bit, worked hard, and we are where we are and it’s not a bad place to be.’ Then I look at our opponents and I go, `Wow, they look good. Wow, they look allright.’ That’s the nature of it.” Coach Joe Schmidt.
COACH: Conor O’Shea
2017 SIX NATIONS: Last
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: 4th 2007, `13
OUTLOOK: Italy has finished bottom of the table 12 out of 18 times, and there is little to suggest this year will be any different. Under Conor O’Shea, Italy has four wins in his 17 matches in charge. It has lost its last 12 Six Nations matches. However, Italy is beginning to sort out its problems with consistency and fitness, and the target is to play to the best of its ability and be a banana skin for someone. It’s best chance is at home, first up against England, and closing with Scotland. Italy is young and inexperienced, with 14 of the 31 players for its opening two matches never having played in the tournament, but hooker Oliviero Fabiani believes that just makes them hungrier. ”There’s a lot of competition inside the group,” Fabiani says. ”It’s really nice and motivating to fight for a place with players like Leonardo Ghiraldini, who has the most number of Italy caps in my position. It’s a healthy battle … inevitably it raises our level.”
EYES ON: Ian McKinley. The Ireland-born flyhalf’s remarkable story could reach another milestone if he makes his Six Nations debut, seven years after retiring after losing the sight in one eye. ”He was judged for selection on who is best for the job, not because Ian has a good story. He is the best to play, but to think of where he has come from is amazing,” O’Shea says. During a club game in 2010, a teammate accidentally stood on McKinley’s left eye and perforated the eyeball. He retired the following year after losing sight in the eye. But McKinley returned to playing rugby in 2014 using specially manufactured goggles, and played for Viadana and Zebre before joining Benetton in 2016. Having qualified for Italy on residency grounds, he scored a late penalty on his international debut to help the Azzurri beat Fiji 19-10. He made further appearances from the bench against Argentina and South Africa. ”This is no good luck story,” O’Shea says. ”It might be something to go on about at the end of his career but for now he is fighting to be Italy’s No. 10.”
QUOTE: ”We’re not in a position to talk about winning the tournament, so our objective is to perform as well as we can in every single game. Fight in every single match.” Italy captain Sergio Parisse.
COACH: Gregor Townsend
2017 SIX NATIONS: 4th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: 3rd 2001, `06, `13
OUTLOOK: It started at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The Scots lost in the quarterfinals, earned the world’s admiration and sympathy, and expectations ballooned. The improvement was sustained in the Six Nations of 2016 and 2017 even though they finished fourth both years. Their bubble was popped each time by the English, who know how to be ruthless. This year marks 10 since the Scots last beat their bogeymen, and the streak is not expected to end in Round 3, even at Murrayfield. For all of the hype around the Scots, they barely broke par in last year’s championship: They won at home but lost away, scored their most tries since the last Five Nations in 1999, but conceded the usual dozen, too. The November tests went the same way: They just held off Samoa, came back and fell short against a New Zealand side limited to 14 men in the fourth quarter, and beat Australia, which was leading just before halftime when Sekope Kepu was sent off. Nobody does false dawns better than Scotland, but belief is high, and Wales is vulnerable enough to be plucked in Cardiff for the first time in 16 years. Expectations have been bolstered by the recalls of the fit-again Stuart Hogg, Greig Laidlaw, Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor and David Denton. None of Scotland’s dangerous backs will shine, however, if the depleted front row can’t hold its own.
EYES ON: The front row. There are doubts about how well the Scots will scrum and not give away penalties when they go to Wales without their top three tightheads, three looseheads, and three hookers. The injury crisis has forced Townsend to reach out to tighthead Jon Welsh, last seen in a Scotland jersey conceding the wrongfully given penalty which Australia kicked to win their 2015 Rugby World Cup quarterfinal. He’s sure to start because his backups, Murray McCallum and D’Arcy Rae, are uncapped and untested. On the loosehead, Jamie Bhatti could make his first start after a debut in November, and Stuart McInally’s backup hooker will likely be Scott Lawson, who was last capped in 2014. Expect Scottish put-ins to come out fast.
QUOTE: ”There’s definitely something special brewing here.” Scotland back Byron McGuigan.
COACH: Warren Gatland
2017 SIX NATIONS: 5th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2005, `08, `12, `13
OUTLOOK: Crippled by an injury crisis that has robbed the team of most of its stars, Wales has been written off. Six players who toured New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions – Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams – will be missing for the opening game at home to improving Scotland. Reserve flyhalf Rhys Priestland, flanker Dan Lydiate and lock Jake Ball are also out. Then there’s the back-to-back matches at England and Ireland, which could leave the Welsh out of title contention by the end of Round 3. Warren Gatland isn’t bemoaning his luck, though, instead using the situation as an opportunity. The November internationals, featuring losses to Australia and New Zealand and wins over Georgia and South Africa, marked a fresh start for the Welsh, who departed from the hard-running ”Warrenball” approach by picking playmakers at flyhalf and inside center to deliver more expansive attacking play. It may require more time for Wales to get used to this style, especially given the injury situation. A second straight fifth-place finish would not be a surprise.
EYES ON: Rhys Patchell. Injuries to flyhalves Biggar (shoulder) and Priestland (hamstring) have landed Wales in a hole at No. 10, a position of much fascination in a country that produced greats Barry John and Phil Bennett. The answer could be Patchell, who should be given the nod over Gareth Anscombe to start the tournament as the pivot. Patchell has been playing No. 10 for a Scarlets side that has just become the first Welsh team to reach the quarterfinals of the European Champions Cup since 2012, although he showed his versatility by switching – and starring – at fullback in group-ending wins over Bath and Toulon. The 24-year-old Patchell has made only four more test appearances since his debut against Japan in 2013, with his only home cap in December against South Africa.
QUOTE: ”We’ll win the tournament.” Coach Warren Gatland.
AP Sports writers Steve Douglas in Manchester, Jerome Pugmire in Paris, Daniella Matar in Milan, and Foster Niumata in London contributed.